For the last several weeks, Oklahoma guard Trae Young has drawn much of the spotlight due to his on-the-court play.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard has been a firecracker on offense, averaging 29.4 points, while also dishing out 10.4 assists per contest to lead the country in both categories.
And for those reasons, and playing at a high level during his AAU circuit days, the former Norman North (Okla.) standout has garnered plenty of national medial attention — including a shoutout from Golden State Warriors star point guard Stephen Curry who called him “unbelievable” over the weekend.
But there’s a talented Texas Tech triplet — Zhaire Smith, Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti — looking to garner some much-needed praise, as well. The trio has provided clutch free throws, shots, defensive stops and more to help the Red Raiders succeed this season.
Smith, Culver and Moretti will look to do it once more as No. 8 Texas Tech faces off against No. 9 Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a Big 12 game televised on ESPNU inside Lloyd Noble Arena in Norman, Okla.
“It’s like this every year in the Big 12,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said of the collection of freshmen talent. “When I was here the first time: Martin Zeno, J (Jarrius) Jackson. We had some freshmen play at incredible levels. So Z (Zhaire Smith) and Jarrett (Culver) are attempting to do that.
“I don’t think it’s time to hand them the jewelry yet. I think they’ve got a lot more to prove, but they’re off to a good start. … You look at any Big 12 game, there’s young guys that can really play.”
Culver, Smith and Moretti, who all come off the bench, have been the biggest reasons Texas Tech’s reserves have outscored their opponents 118-33 in the first three Big 12 contests.
Smith, who has finished in double figures in his previous 10 games, is averaging 10.7 points per game for the Red Raiders (14-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big 12). The 6-5 guard is also nabbing four rebounds per contest and notched 16 blocks and 14 steals in 15 games played.
But even Smith knows that must all get better when he’s asked to guard Young, who had recorded five straight double-double until a loss against then No. 6 West Virginia over the weekend. Young finished with 29 points, four rebounds, five assists and eight turnovers in the loss to the Mountaineers.
“He’s a really good player. Him and his team,” Smith said of Young and the Sooners (12-2, 2-1). “We’ve got to take his 3s away and play on defense.”
Young’s affinity for shooting from well beyond the three-point line has been documented all season. Going into Tuesday’s contest, he’s attempted 139 three-pointers — more than the combined totals of teammates Christian James (68) and Brady Manek (68).
James (12.6 points, 4.3 rebounds) and Manek (11 points, 5.6 rebounds) are the two other players averaging double digits for the Sooners.
“His (Trae Young) range and speed have impressed me,” said Culver, who is averaging 11 points and 10.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game this season. “I just feel like, if we game plan good enough and play well enough, we should be good.”
Creating a game plan has certainly been a challenge for the first 13 opponents who have competed against Oklahoma.
That was until the Sooners traveled to West Virginia and were introduced to an aggressive, pressure defense made famous by head coach Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers over the last several seasons.
West Virginia forced 17 turnovers and scored 21 points on the way to a 89-76 win in Morgantown, W. Va.
“Oklahoma’s got a good team. They’ve got really good players,” Beard said. “I think Trae Young will be the first to tell ya. So it’s not just a one-man show. We have all sorts of issues in this game where we’re going to have to stop their 3-point shooting, we’re going to have to stop their inside game, we’re going to have to make them uncomfortable at times in the game. A lot easier to talk about it then do it, but we’re trying to do everything we can to put our players in a situation where we can have some success.
“But, we know how difficult this game is going to be. I think Oklahoma is not only one of the better teams in the Big 12, but I think they’re one of the best teams in college basketball. Again, it starts with their coach (Lon Kruger) and then they have really good players.”
Texas Tech also has their own good players, including guard Keenan Evans who was named Big 12 Player of the Week on Monday. Evans, a senior, averaged 21 points, four rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals in wins over then No. 10 Kansas on the road and Kansas State at home.
Evans, who scored 16 of his game-high 27 points in the second half, helped guide the Red Raiders to the program’s second 3-0 start to Big 12 play and provided leadership on and off the court. Texas Tech was also ranked No. 8 for the first time since the 1995-1996 season under James Dickey.
“It’s impossible to do if you don’t have internal leadership,” Beard said when asked how he keeps his players level-headed. “Every coach strives for that. You look for it all the time, whether it’s in pro sports or college. Certainly high school level. … But, I think, really if you don’t have internal leadership with your players understanding that you can’t get too high or too low — it’s really difficult from a coaching standpoint.”
Who: No. 18 Texas Tech at No. 7 Oklahoma
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Lloyd Noble Center, Norman, Okla.
Records: Texas Tech 14-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big 12; Oklahoma 12-2, 2-1
Last game: No. 18 Texas Tech 74, Kansas State 58; No. 6 West Virginia 77, No.7 Oklahoma 76
Last meeting: Oklahoma 84, Texas Tech 75 on Jan. 14, 2016 in Norman, Okla.
Updates: Follow Carlos Silva Jr. on Twitter at @cmsilvajr
Notable: The Texas Tech men’s basketball team has not trailed in its first three Big 12 games.
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